The Future of Coal: Wyoming’s Boom Fuels Mom-and-Pop Shops

(Wall Street Journal, January 6) – Booming coal production in Wyoming has helped build a business that delivers a different kind of fuel—caffeine.

Dave Dorson’s Expresso Lube, where you can eat a plate of crawfish étouffée while you get your oil changed, is in Gillette, Wyoming, just a few miles from some of the most productive coal mines in the country.

“It affects every business in town,” Mr. Dorson says of the energy industry, which includes oil and gas, as well as coal.

Northeast Wyoming’s Powder River Basin is home to some of the most efficient mines in the country. And the coal they produce is less expensive and burns cleaner than higher-sulfur coal from other parts of the country. Campbell County, where Gillette is located, produces more coal than any county in the U.S.

That means Gillette’s fortunes have tended to rise and fall with coal. In 1974 the town inspired a psychologist to describe a condition called “Gillette Syndrome” to describe the negative consequences of rapid growth from mining, including crime, alcoholism and divorce.

Mr. Dorson, 55 years old, moved to Gillette almost 40 years ago, lured by the promise of work in the energy industry. When he didn’t get a call from the coal mines, he found a job in the oil fields and spent much of his career working rigs and later, consulting.

Running a combination lube shop and restaurant was something he had planned to do on the side. It became a full-time venture three years ago when the oil-field-services company he worked for went under.

Expresso Lube might not have caught on when arrived in Gillette, Mr. Dorson says. People drank fewer lattes back then. But Gillette’s population has grown more than 50% since 2000, to more than 30,000 people.

The town’s median household income was $70,843 from 2010 through 2012. And its unemployment rate was 2.8% last October, down from 3.3% a year earlier and well below the 7.3% nationwide rate.

Gillette has thrived on tax revenue from coal mining and energy production, which has funded schools, roads and parks, Mr. Dorson says.

“It’s still not Denver or anything, but it has really grown,” he says.

Still, Mr. Dorson says, he worries about the future of coal in Wyoming. The state’s production has fallen from its peak in 2008.

“It just seems like after we have a boom there’s kind of a bust,” he says. “And then there’s another boom.”

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